10th December

Class Mobility

I have always enjoyed the prospect of visiting schools and talking about University education. I remember a particular session that took place in the late nineties that is relevant to the current debate about the rising cost of education. It's a wet, cold Monday morning in south London. A class of year 11 sociology students awaits the arrival of the lecturer from the university college up the road. The working class students of all shades who sit before me are a good sample of the kind of young people the New Labour government under both Blair and Brown tried to lure into higher education through successive widening participation initiatives. None of them have family members at university. As I prepare to deliver the pitch on why going to university is a good idea, I see out of the corner of my eye a student staring blankly at a window made opaque by condensation.

Doing these sessions is always challenging and rewarding. Increasingly though my enthusiasm is tempered by doubt. I was the first in my family to get a degree and by a twist of fate I now teach in the place that I studied at almost three decades ago. As much as my generation owes a debt to the university as a place of new opportunities and fresh horizons, it is nothing in comparison to what this class will owe in financial terms if they embrace the same opportunity. A three-year degree will leave them with a debt of tens of thousands of pounds. Regardless, the group on this particular occasion listens with courtesy to my invitation to think


sociologically. At the end of the session I packed up my papers. But I couldn't get a troubling question out of my mind. If I had been faced with the same choice as these students would I have taken the financial gamble and applied to university? In all honesty, I don't think I would have. We are told that poorer students will get 'special treatment' and financial assistance. Yet at the same time low income families are placed in a situation where the size of the educational price tag is simply too much of a risk. Claire Callender has argued that the fear of student debt inhibits widening access to university. As she herself has noted despite this there has been a measure of success in widening student participation and the introduction of student fees that were implemented in 2004 did not halt this. In 2010 HEFC reported "young people living in the most disadvantaged areas who enter higher education has increased by around +30 per cent over the past five years." However, according to Sir Martin Harris, Director of Fair Access, for the top third selective universities, the proportion of disadvantaged students "remained almost flat." There may be an increased measure of access to higher education but there has been little change with regard to where the most advantaged students go to university. The choices students make according to Claire Callender and Jonathan Jackson: "reflect their material constraints as well as their cultural and social capital, social perceptions and


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WINTER - 2010

16 December